Updated: Apr 8
by Matt Sefcovic (@MattSefcovic)
After starting the season as the #1 team in the country, Florida (16-8, 3-3 SEC) is in need of a series win after being swept by South Carolina last weekend in Columbia, SC. Unfortunately for the Gators, wins will not come easy as they host Ole Miss (20-4, 6-0 SEC), one of the hottest teams in the country.
You will not find many teams that have resumes quite as impressive as the Rebels this early in the season, starting 6-0 in SEC play, sweeping both Auburn and Alabama. They also have victories over Texas Tech, Texas, and TCU, all teams that are currently ranked in the top 15.
Coach Bianco has his club rolling, off to their best start in the SEC since 1964, sweeping both Alabama and Auburn in the same season for the first time since 2001. Part of the reason the Rebels are having this much success is due to Tim Elko, who is off to a monster start. Elko leads the SEC with 34 RBI, is second in the conference in home runs with nine, and leads the SEC in total bases, all while batting .341. These are SEC Player of the Year numbers he is putting up.
Peyton Chatagnier, Kevin Graham, Hayden Dunhurst, and Justin Bench all join Elko with batting averages over .300 for the season, with Graham and Dunhurst adding four home runs apiece. After his performance against Alabama this weekend, TJ McCants was named SEC Freshman of the Week. McCants was 4-11 with 3 RBI, a home run, and four runs scored, raising his season average from .278 to .298 in three games.
Gunnar Hoglund (3-0) leads the Rebels pitching staff as the Friday night starter and a 2.63 ERA. He is currently the nation's leader in strikeouts with 65 and boasts 15.53 strikeouts per nine innings, the best in the SEC. After missing a few weeks, Doug Nikhazy bounced back this weekend, tossing five shutout innings, allowing just one hit, and seven strikeouts against Alabama. Nikhazy improved to 2-1 on the season and lowered his ERA to 3.00 after struggling against TCU and UCF to begin the season.
Taylor Broadway (3-0) has been dominant in the closer role for the Rebels with six saves and a 2.45 ERA, which is inflated due to one bad outing against Louisiana Monroe. Coach Bianco’s staff does not walk many batters, ranking sixth in the country with 3.97 strikeouts per free pass.
It has been a strange year for the Gators to begin the season, especially in SEC play. Florida began their conference schedule with a sweep of Texas A&M and then proceeded to get swept the following weekend. The Gators offense is currently batting .285 as a team, which is just outside of the top 50 in the nation. Jud Fabian, a College Baseball Nation Preseason All-American, leads the way with eight home runs and is second with 23 RBI, but he is only batting .250 through 24 games. Coach Kevin O’Sullivan needs more out of his star outfielder in order for Florida to get back on track this weekend. Fortunately for Florida fans, this offense has plenty of other options, including five starters batting over .300. Freshman Nathan Hickey is batting .337 and leads the team in total bases (52) and RBI (26). Florida and Ole Miss are both tied for 18th in the country with 178 runs scored.
Due to the sweep against South Carolina, Coach O’Sullivan has decided to make a few major changes to the Gators weekend rotation. Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich will not start against the Rebels, as Franco Aleman and Christian Scott will both get their first start of the season. Aleman has appeared in 12 games this year and currently has a 4.58 ERA while Scott has been an anchor for the bullpen. Scott has thrown 20 innings in ten appearances, allowing just three runs on the season. He will be a big loss for the bullpen, but could provide a spark that the Gators pitching staff needs. Like Ole Miss, Florida throws a lot of strikes, ranking 14th in the nation with 3.51 strikeouts per walk. Freshman Brandon Sproat has not allowed a run in his last six appearances, lowering his ERA to 1.64 although he has struggled finding the zone at times.
Matt's Prediction: If you are a college baseball fan, you will want to keep your eyes on Gainesville this weekend. The Gators need a series win to get back on track after drawing a blank last weekend, but I think the Rebels rotation will prove to be too much for Sully’s offense. His message to the starting rotation is loud and clear, but how will the Gators respond? I will take Ole Miss in this one, but Florida is going to be hungry.